Pam Wallace wrangles the Shimmer slushers into a stack this week to see what they really, really want in stories!
How does a writer get their story forwarded to the board? Each slusher is unique, with their own tastes and perspectives, and let me warn you from the start–there’s no way to predict which slusher will be assigned which story. When you send a submission to Shimmer, it’s kind of like entering your story in a game of “Spin the Bottle.” You never know who’s going to get that first kiss, and whether they’ll ask for a second.
For those of you who practice the fine arts of Rejectomancy and Prognostojection (trying to predict why a story was rejected or whether a story will be rejected), we offer you some of our slushers’ personal faves, what we look for in a story, what grabs us and compels us to keep reading. If you look close enough, it’s highly likely you’ll find certain commonalities among the different slusher opinions.
As always, we never say never. Just as soon as we say we like this and don’t like that, a story will come through that rocks our world and yet doesn’t have one item from either “list.” So write that story that you love. Make us believe in it. We read slush because we love stories, and we really do want to love yours, I promise.
I want a story that grabs me with that first line, nags me to keep going, and surprises me with which ending was chosen from the directions implied by the narrative. I love plucky narrators (I know, I still say “plucky.” Shush.) I love stories where the weirdness is at the heart of the story, but the tale is about the people dealing with that weirdness. I struggle with second person narratives, especially when the presumed “you” and I have nothing in common. I dislike “preachy” works, especially if the proselytizer is trying to justify their particular “-ism” by using junk science and research while ignoring contrary information (especially when that information is in the majority.)
So go ahead. Grab my attention. Wow me. I’m waiting for that genius work.
I think I’m pretty predictable when it comes to my likes and dislikes in terms of slush stories. What I always look for first is voice, because I think Shimmer definitely has a kind of voice that it looks for in all its stories, so when an author sends something that has that shimmery voice I always feel like they’ve done their research and are going to give me a story I’ll like. I also appreciate stories that aren’t set in White America, and stories with minority/LGBTQ characters. I like a rich and varied selection of human characters. Stories that are compassionate toward their characters are always appreciated, as well – I like seeing all kinds of shades of grey and reasons for characters to act the way they do. What usually cinches the deal for me (or, you know, has the opposite effect) is the quality of the ending. I like good endings! I know they’re hard to do, but nothing is more disappointing than a good story with a bad ending. I’m also, unfortunately, not opposed to camp. It’s a flaw in my character. I’m working on it.
What I look for first in a story is the voice–that indescribable, undefinable “Something” that makes a story come alive. I want to be propelled into the story. I want to feel like I’m inside the POV character’s brain and watching events unfold through their eyes and the rest of their senses. I love humor, especially sarcastic humor, so stories with a wry twist that tickle my funnybone make my list. I tend to prefer lyrical writing, but that’s not to say I won’t like a plain-spoken tale. I like the story to be unique in some way. I take more notice of out-of-the-ordinary settings and situations, but again, this doesn’t mean I won’t like an oft-used setting if the story is well done with a unique twist. I prefer to be surprised by the ending. And that ending has to resonate and touch me with an emotional layer. If you make me cry, I’m yours.
In a nutshell, I want stories that don’t bore me. When I read slush, I’m looking for:
Stories with better-than-competent prose. These are stories where I can tell from the first few paragraphs that unless something goes seriously wrong in the middle, I’ll read all the way to the end. (I hope nobody is surprised that most slush stories are not read all the way from the first to last sentence!)
Stories that don’t have obvious endings. Most stories need more than two possible endings. Usually if there are only two possible answers, I get bored because either it’s too clear which option the author will go for, or the protagonist waffles so much that I stop caring what they choose. Note: this does not mean that I’m looking for “twist” endings. Those tend to be the most predictable because everyone goes for the same twists.
Finally, I love beautifully weird fiction that exists on its own terms, rather than being “yet another X story.” A recent example is Karin Tidbeck’s “Jagannath” from Weird Tales #358, which is very, very strange. This isn’t to say I can’t still be wowed by a really interesting take on a popular Grimm fairy tale or your favorite fantasy creature, but the bar is pretty high. What I want is for a story to surprise me with something I didn’t even know I was looking for.
For me, Shimmer means dark, weird, and lovely. I can be seduced by strong voice, non-linear plots, and savvy humor. I’m less enthused by stories with only one possible outcome or that contain unexamined Western cultural defaults. Once a writing instructor told me, “leave room for the reader,” and I find that’s really important to me. It’s hard to define, but I want to feel almost like the story needs me to put together some concepts (such as who loves who but can’t say so out loud, or why this character is doing something self-destructive) instead of handing me the answers. The more I engage with the story, the more I forget to guard my heart.
It may be due to the fact that I’m in an MFA program, but my first thought is always, “What would I want to say about this in workshop?” If I can find something to say that doesn’t involve expletives, and I could actually use it in a critique, you’ve gotten past my first filter. I’m a grammar nazi, and can’t overlook multiple misspellings/grammar atrocities–unless the voice is spectacular. I love stories that screw with my mind; I’m a post-apocalyptic nut, and I love anything to do with viruses and zombies. If you can create a world for me where you wouldn’t mind sitting next to me at the movie, I’ll love you forever. I’m notorious for picking apart scenes that don’t make sense; world-building is supremely important to me. If I can’t poke your world full of holes, if I want to pack my suitcase and move there even after I’ve seen someone’s head get ripped off–you’re my new favorite person.
Maybe I’m too picky, but a good story should suck me in, and have to drag me out by my toes.
I look for stories that make me smile, make me sad, make me feel excited, or completely sick with writerly envy; the ones that make me feel something. I’m immediately drawn to lyrical language and gorgeous prose, and can be a bit blind-sided as if it’s shiny in that I don’t initially care that the plot may be hobbling along, or comprised of assorted ragged bits and bobs that don’t quite match up; and I often have to fight the tendency to fall in love with stuff just because it’s pretty (shallow, yes, but I have learned along the way). So, to woo me now? Add some strong characters, grab me; take me along on their journey with them (which could be surreal and haphazard, a little ambiguity is fine by me, even with endings); let me feel their emotions; show me something new; twist old narratives into something unique; let me glimpse the weird worlds that lurk behind the workaday; the humanity in the monstrous, the monstrous in the beautiful, and that’s it: I’m yours.
Aside from the basics, such as cleanliness of the technical elements, good pacing, and a unique premise, here’s what I want:
I want a story that cuts like a table saw. I want gleaming, sharp prose with teeth. Savage beauty, if I can find it. Lilting, lyrical language thrills me. Visceral detail and vivid characters hook me and make me want to fall in love. None of this is to say I won’t enjoy a more plainly written story, but it probably won’t excite me in the same way. It’ll take me longer to warm up to it and that’s iffy, given that I have a short attention span.
I really enjoy stories that surprise me, and I love when a writer knows how and when to provide levity to help keep tension from dragging a story to the ground. I love weirdness and wit, monsters and well-written magic. I love surrealism and characters who breathe. I want clever metaphors with a sharp mouth feel. I look for genuine emotion and useful description; I want a punch in the gut and a knife in the heart—emotionally, figuratively, or even literally sometimes. Who doesn’t enjoy a little bit of blood?
Wow, all of my wants sound so violent. I guess I take the whole “grabs you by the throat and won’t let you go” thing to heart, eh?
Whenever I approach a story, it’s a bit analytically. I’m constantly running through questions:
– Does something about the opening–the character, the voice, the situation, etc.–at least engage me enough to keep going?
– Is the premise unique? If not, is it different enough from past takes on the concept to be worth considering further?
– Is there any character I care about or am intrigued by?
– Do the technical elements of the writing keep pulling me out of the story (i.e. clunky spelling/grammar/structure,
– Does any faulty plot logic snag me?
– As the story progresses, do I understand enough of what’s going on? Even if I’m confused about some things, am I still engaged by the style, voice, or otherwise?
– Does the ending satisfy/make sense/have a great twist?
And so on. As long as the story is able to answer these and other questions, it stands a good chance.